Gov. Peter Shumlin is getting serious about wasteful state spending on travel. At least, when it comes to other people in state government.
Last Thursday, the Shumlin administration ordered agency and department heads to cut their travel budgets by 10 percent this fiscal year, as the Burlington Free Press’ Terri Hallenbeck first reported. Meanwhile, Shumlin’s secretary of administration, Jeb Spaulding, told Hallenbeck he hopes to trim the 56.5-cent-per-mile federal reimbursement rate state employees receive when driving on the job.
In a memo to his underlings, Spaulding wrote that the administration “believes that in many instances departments can accomplish their programmatic responsibilities with less in-state and out-of-state travel.”
Shummy could’ve outlined his new fiscal austerity measures — driven by a deal he cut with legislators in May to avoid new taxes — at a triumphant press conference last Thursday.
Instead, he jetted off to D.C. that very day on a taxpayer-financed trip to give a speech — and to raise money for the partisan political group he chairs, the Democratic Governors Association.
According to spokeswoman Sue Allen, the gov popped down to the nation’s capital Thursday morning to deliver closing remarks at the United States Agency for International Development’s Global Education Summit. He returned to Vermont Thursday night.
“The governor was invited by USAID because he actually knows Christie Vilsack,” Allen explains, referring to the senior USAID education adviser and former first lady of Iowa, whose husband, Tom, happens to serve as secretary of agriculture.
“That is official state business, and the state paid for the ticket,” Allen says.
Shumlin’s airfare? $377.80. That doesn’t include the cost of sending his state police security detail along — a sum the administration declines to disclose.
But education wasn’t the only thing on the governor’s mind during his quickie trip to the Beltway. While there, according to his staff, Shumlin wined and dined a potential donor to the Democratic Governors Association over lunch: Bethesda philanthropist Mary Ann Stein.
Stein didn’t return a call seeking comment.
Is it common practice for the governor to raise money for the DGA while traveling on the state’s dime?
“No, it’s not common practice,” Allen says, adding that it happens “occasionally.”
“If the state’s paying, the trip is official,” she explains. “The governor is making the trip only because it’s official business. If he has an hour in his schedule, as he did today, a couple hours before the speech, in this case the DGA dropped a lunch with a philanthropist in the schedule for him.”
Typically, when the governor travels to DGA events, that organization foots the bill. Such was the case earlier this year when Shumlin took leave of Vermont for the political group’s confabs in Aspen, Nantucket and Maryland.
That arrangement makes sense, given that the DGA’s hyper-partisan mission is to raise money for Democratic candidates and clobber the hell out of Republicans.
But oftentimes, the DGA arranges its get-togethers around meetings of the nonpartisan National Governors Association. In those cases, Allen says, the state pays for Shumlin’s and his staff’s travel expenses.
NGA meetings are “policy heavy,” Allen says, and include “governors-only sessions” that provide the state chiefs “a chance to speak candidly about health care, economic development and other issues.” One recent NGA meeting featured a session for staffers focused on preparing for natural disasters, which Allen and Shumlin chief of staff Liz Miller attended.
But at each of the three NGA trips for which the state paid this year, Shumlin participated in partisan press conferences or fundraising gatherings benefitting the DGA.
The bill to taxpayers? $4547 to send Shumlin and three staffers to Washington in January; $831 to send him and one staffer to Chicago in June; and $1600 to send him and a staffer to Milwaukee earlier this month.
That’s not enough to balance the state budget, to be sure. But surely Shumlin himself could “accomplish [his] programmatic responsibilities with less in-state and out-of-state travel.” Or at least ask the DGA to contribute to his airfare when it takes up his time.
Then again, maybe it’s easier just to nickel and dime state employees over a few cents a mile.
Mary Ann Stein isn’t the only donor looking to play ball with the Democratic Governors Association.
On Tuesday, the Internal Revenue Service released a new fundraising report outlining precisely who gave what to the DGA during the first six months of Shumlin’s tenure as chairman. In that time, the DGA raised $13.4 million, while its counterpart, the Republican Governors Association, raised $23.6 million.
And we’re not talking $25 checks here.
Because the two organizations raise money for state elections, they don’t have to abide by federal fundraising limits — meaning they can take in unlimited contributions from corporations and labor unions.
On Shumlin’s watch, the DGA has accepted hundreds of donations in excess of $25,000 from such entities — including many whose priorities seem contrary to the gov’s.
For instance, how does the guy who tried to shut down Vermont Yankee feel about the $105,000 the DGA received from the Nuclear Energy Institute in April and May? How does the renewable-energy apostle like the DGA’s $75,000 contribution from Exxon Mobil, the $125,000 from Exelon or the $50,000 from the American Petroleum Institute? Not to mention that $25,000 check from the American Coalition for Clean Coal!
Shumlin says he won’t accept pharmaceutical company contributions to his personal campaign account, but under his watch, the DGA has accepted $250,000 from AstraZeneca, $100,000 from Merck and $300,000 from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
I could go on and tell you about the $260,000 the DGA took from Walmart, the $75,000 that came from Altria or the $125,000 generously donated by Blue Cross Blue Shield. But I’d probably just bore you. So let’s instead hear from Shumlin himself:
“You know, this is the way I look at it: While I might pick and choose the donors to ‘Shumlin for Governor,’ as chairman of the DGA, I represent all governors,” Shummy told us last month. “Therefore I don’t get involved with who the DGA should or shouldn’t take money from.”
Except when he’s courting donors over lunch in D.C. Or mingling with them in Aspen.
How do Vermonters feel when their governor rakes in the green from Big Bong? That is, the marijuana legalization lobby.
If last fall’s gubernatorial race is any indication, Vermonters don’t apparently see anything wrong with that.
During a Vermont Public Radio debate last September, Shumlin’s Republican opponent, former state senator Randy Brock, tried to harsh the gov’s mellow for conspicuously courting drug money. The month before, Shumlin placed a call to the executive director of NORML, a pro-pot-legalization group, promising to be a national spokesman for the cause — and asking for a $6000 campaign contribution.
By the end of his reelection fight — if you can call it that — Shummy’d accepted at least $13,000 from groups advocating for the decriminalization or legalization of pot. He even managed to carve out the time in September to appear at a New York City fundraiser for the Marijuana Policy Project — alongside former talk show host Montel Williams.
The electorate’s response? In two words: Dank, bro.
Brock got smoked. Like a Dubie.
Sure enough, Shumlin and his legislative allies went to work last winter seeking to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. They succeeded. And now Shummy is paying it forward.
On September 19, the governor’s slated to speak to the Marijuana Policy Project’s top donors during a fundraising conference call for the group. Participants must commit to contributing $1000 to $10,000 to pot-loving pols, according to an invitation penned by MPP executive director Rob Kampia, who apparently calls the gov “Pete.”
“Would you like to join me for a phone call with Vermont Gov. Pete Shumlin, two other MPP staffers and approximately 30 major MPP donors to discuss our strategy for legalizing marijuana nationwide over the next four years?” Kampia wrote in the invite.
Wait a sec. Discussing a strategy for legalizing pot nationwide? Isn’t Shumlin’s official position that he favors decriminalization — not legalization?
“As you know, we just passed the decriminalization law,” explains Shumlin’s legislative liaison, Louis Porter. “We’re concentrating on making sure that works and achieves its goals and allows us to focus on highly addictive drugs like meth and opiates. And we are carefully watching how legalization works in other states before any other possible changes.”
Huh. OK. But does he support legalization or not?
“At this point, we are looking at how it works in other places and how the decriminalization statute works,” Porter says.
But wait, isn’t the point of the conference call to spread the legalizing gospel to other states — not patiently observe how it works? Why would Shumlin take part in that kind of strategy sesh if he didn’t back legalization?
“As you know, he talks to a lot of advocacy groups about different policy positions,” Porter equivocates.
Sure, but you don’t see Shummy plotting a nationwide strategy to ban abortions with donors to the National Right to Life Committee, do you?
Shumlin’s staffers might be squeamish about the call, but MPP staffers sure aren’t.
“We’re going to be talking about how we’re going to bring about an end to marijuana prohibition in the states and nationwide,” says MPP communications director Mason Tvert. “We’ve never done something like this with a sitting governor before.”
More than eight months after the Vermont Press Bureau dwindled to just one Statehouse reporter, the joint venture of the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus has landed a top-notch recruit.
Neal Goswami, who spent seven years at the Bennington Banner, will join bureau chief Peter Hirschfeld in Montpelier after Labor Day. The two will tag-team Statehouse news coverage for the papers.
“The Banner was a great place to get some really solid experience and be exposed to state government on a limited basis,” Goswami says. “I’m excited to be up there full time to get my hands dirty.”
The Press Bureau’s gain is the Banner’s loss, particularly as the southern Vermont daily bids adieu to a slew of staffers. In an editorial in last Thursday’s paper, editor Michelle Karas noted that along with Goswami, the paper is losing three other reporters and editors this summer: staff writer Zeke Wright, arts editor Andrew Roiter and assistant sports editor Austin Danforth, who moved up to the Burlington Free Press last month.
Karas said she’s hired the Berkshire Record’s Geoffrey Smith to replace Danforth and plans to fill the other vacant positions as well.
“I am a firm believer that new faces on the staff and new voices in our news reporting will invigorate the Banner’s coverage,” Karas wrote. “And I’m not just saying that because I’m new here (I’ve been editor since January).”
Lastly, a hearty congrats to former VTDigger intern and Montpelier native Taylor Dobbs, who’s been hired to replace Kirk Carapezza as Vermont Public Radio’s digital reporter. Since graduating from Northeastern University this summer, Dobbs has been freelancing all over the place — including in this very issue of Seven Days.
Time for Dobbs' pledge drive hazing!